One of the more pernicious myths current in our contemporary political discourse is the idea that George W. Bush was a strong leader who got whatever he wanted through Congress. The way this argument is usually made is highly misleading. First, we need to make a distinction between the times when Bush and the Republicans had control of Congress and when they did not. When Bush came into office, the GOP controlled the House and the Senate was split 50-50, with Dick Cheney breaking the tie. Ordinarily, new presidents come in with a lot of momentum and pass a lot of bills early on. Bush did not. His sole focus was on passing a tax-cut for the rich. He couldn’t pass it under normal rules because the Democrats had the filibuster. So he did the same thing that Obama did to pass the Affordable Care Act. He used the budget reconciliation process. The Senate deadlocked 50-50 and Cheney broke the tie.
The President did not sign one other significant piece of legislation between his inauguration and the attacks of September 11. He did lose control of the Senate though. Sen. Jim Jeffords (R-VT) switched his allegiance to the Democrats and control of all the Senate committees flipped to their side.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks the president was able to ram home the PATRIOT Act, a free trade agreement with Jordan, and win authorization to wage an endless War on Terror. Of course, the 9/11 attacks were a singular event and cannot be compared to anything President Obama has faced.
In 2002, the president was mostly consumed with concocting a false pretense for invading Iraq, but he did manage to pass the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education bill, the Sarbanes-Oxley bill, and reluctantly create the Department of Homeland Security.
It should be remembered that Teddy Kennedy helped pass NCLB and that Paul Sarbanes was a Democrat. It is significantly easier for a Republican president to increase the federal role in education than to reduce it, and the Sarbanes-Oxley bill was a reaction to the Enron/WorldCom scandal that passed 99-1 in the Senate and 423-3 in the House. It was hardly heavy-lifting, and it was instantly reviled on all the cable business channels.
In 2002, the Republicans retook control of the Senate and from 2003-2006 had complete control of the legislative process. They again used the budget reconciliation process to cut taxes for the rich. They again wound up with a 50-50 tie. And Dick Cheney cast the deciding vote for a second time.
The other major bill of 2003 created the Medicare Part D program, which was so unpopular on the right that Tom DeLay had to keep the vote open for hours while he threatened and bribed just enough of his members to assure its passage. While the bill was an obscene boon to the pharmaceutical industry, expanding Medicare is hardly a priority to the right.
In 2004, the president, despite controlling Congress, did almost nothing. He signed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and signed free trade agreements with Australia and Morocco.
In 2005, his effort to privatize Social Security fell before the filibuster. Other than that, his big accomplishment was the loathsome Bankruptcy Bill, which was aided and abetted by Democrats like Joe Biden.
In 2006, he accomplished almost nothing. His main accomplishment was covering his tracks and making it hard to try him as a war criminal by signing the Military Commissions Act.
After the 2006 midterms threw control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats, Bush’s legislative record improves, but he was signing Democratic bills.
The truth is that Bush was only able to pass his tax cuts with the absolute minimum number of votes and only by bypassing the filibuster. He expanded the Department of Education and Medicare (admittedly, in shitty ways) which is not a conservative priority. He utilized the fear from 9/11 to give himself an obscene amount of power, which he then abused. But he did not do a whole lot else legislatively to ram home a conservative agenda. Most of the damage he did was through how he ran the Executive Branch and how he acted as commander-in-chief. He was constrained legislatively by the filibuster. The only difference between Bush’s experience with Congress and Obama’s is that when Obama actually controlled Congress, he produced an avalanche of liberal legislation. Bush wasted his time on Terri Schiavo.